May 5, 2011

Weekly Language Usage Tips: effect/affect & none, neither, either, any: singular or plural

Posted in affect/effect, neither-singular or plural?, neither/nor, None (singular or plural), Uncategorized at 9:57 am by dlseltzer

Tip 1: effect or affect

I attended a presentation this week, and one of the slides featured a bulleted line that said something to this effect:

Compliance with training and surveys was very good (better than 80%), but turnover and variability by office may effect results.

Oops. It must be time to talk about ‘effect’ and ‘affect’ again; we haven’t done that since January, 2008.

For some reason, this is a point of confusion for many. What is tricky about this troublesome pair is that both words function as verbs AND nouns, and their meanings are similar.

This is what you need to remember.

Affect is almost always used as a verb, and it is the term that should have been used in our nameless friend’s presentation:

Compliance with training and surveys was very good (better than 80%), but turnover and variability by office may affect results.

It means to have an influence on or to cause a change in something (a less common meaning is to alter the feelings of someone, as in, ‘The poem affected her deeply’).

As a noun, it is used in the fields of psychiatry and psychology and means feelings or emotion (e.g., “The child’s lack of affect made him difficult to diagnose”). When used an a noun, it is pronounced with the emphasis on the first syllable (it rhymes with aspect).

Effect is almost always used as a noun, meaning result or outcome. For example:

The effect of mixing flour with butter, baking powder, and milk is often a biscuit.

Drinking alcohol with lunch often has a deleterious effect on office productivity.

When it is used as a verb, which is far less common, it means to bring about or accomplish, as in, “He effected the changes by changing pertinent policies and procedures.” The verb and the noun are pronounced the same way.

The bad news is that there is no special trick for remembering this; you just have to memorize it. And it is best to think of the common forms where affect is the verb, and effect is the noun.

The only trick I could come up with was this: If you are trying to decide which word to use, think  ‘a’ is for action so the word starting with ‘a,’ affect, is the action word, that is, the verb.

Tip 2:  None, neither, either, any: singular or plural?

A reader writes:

When using words like “either”, “neither”, “none”, “any”, etc. in sentences with a second-person subject, is the verb supposed to be in the singular? As in, “If either of you knows…” or “Neither of you has given me…”?

The answer to this is easy: It depends. Okay, not so easy. Both ‘none’ and ‘any’ can be either singular or plural, depending upon the context. If ‘you’ refers to multiple people, the verb would be plural; if ‘you’ refers to just one, the verb is singular. If you can’t tell from the context, the usual default is to use a plural verb. And this doesn’t hold for just the second-person, it is the same for the third-person.

‘Either’ and ‘neither’ are generally singular. There is an exception, however. If the word follows a choice between two or more alternatives, the verb should take the form of the closest alternative. Furthermore, if one alternative is singular and one is plural, it is preferred that you put the plural word last and use a plural verb. I’ll give some example:

Either Mary or the other girls are going to lead the parade.

Neither Buffy nor the vampires were going to give up.

To further confuse the issue, if ‘either’ or ‘neither’ is followed by a prepositional phrase and a plural noun, the traditional rule is that you still use a singular verb since ‘either’ and ‘neither’ are singular; however, it is becoming acceptable and it is common to see (or hear) the word followed by a plural verb.

Neither of the boys was eligible for the prize. TRADITIONALLY CORRECT

Neither of the boys were eligible for the prize. NON-TRADITIONALLY CORRECT

For this one, I generally rely on my ear and I decide which sounds better to me. But if you want one rule for this situation, stick with the singular verb.



  1. hi. please explain it to me. which of these sentences are right?
    there was neither spoon nor fork on the table.
    there was neither a spoon nor a fork on the table.
    thank you very much for helping

    • dlseltzer said,

      In English, we modify nouns with articles (e.g., a, the), so your second sentence is correct.

  2. ghoffman said,

    in the following sentence, making ‘neither’ plural avoids an awkward construction of pronouns that compete for proper form of the verb:

    1. neither he nor I are members of the board.
    2. neither he nor I is a member of the board.
    3. neither he nor I am a member of the board.

    which do you think is most nearly (traditionally) correct?

    • dlseltzer said,

      To my ear, 1 sounds the best, but it is bending the traditional rule. I would feel perfectly comfortable saying neither Harry nor Paul is a member of the board. That follows the rule of neither being singular. I think the choice of pronouns, here, makes it more complicated. You wouldn’t say ‘he am’ just as you wouldn’t say ‘I is.’ I would probably rewrite the sentence. He is not a member of the board and neither am I. (or something like that)

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